October 22, 2009
My friend Collin Wilcox, an actress best known for her showy role in To Kill a Mockingbird, died of brain cancer last week, on October 14. The New York Times ran a medium-sized obituary this morning, a recognition that was well-deserved in light of Collin’s impressive New York theater resume. Her husband of thirty years, Scott Paxton, tells me that Collin was diagnosed with multiple brain tumors on August 11, and declined treatment. She died peacefully, in her home. Collin was so youthful, strong, and down-to-earth that it seemed like she’d be around forever.
Regular readers of this blog will recall that Collin figured prominently in two pieces that appeared here: a biographical interview in which I solicited her memories of many of her early television appearances, and an earlier story about “The Benefactor,” the famous “abortion episode” of The Defenders.
When I was researching the latter, I put a call in to Collin, one of the four actresses who played young women who had undergone illegal abortions in that show. I didn’t expect to get much from Collin, but when she casually mentioned that she had almost died after her own abortion as a teenager, I sat bolt upright in my chair. I knew that I had a real story and not just a dry account of a TV episode’s production history. Collin was smart enough to understand what she had just given me, too, and it didn’t bother her in the slightest to have some intimate details from her past repurposed into a human interest story about her work. She was a courageous lady.
A few months later, I called Collin again and asked her to submit to a longer interview, because I knew her witty, straight-shooting way of talking would make for an entertaining piece that would all but write itself. (My plan was for Collin’s interview to kick off a series of interviews with underappreciated early television actors, and the next one will appear soon.)
When Collin told me the following story in that interview, she insisted that I omit the name of the movie star she spoke about, because he was (and is) still living:
After Twilight Zone, I flew to Italy to join my fiance, Geoffrey Horne, who was shooting a film in Rome. Then on the flight coming back, the stewardess, as we called them then, came up and said, “So-and-so would like you to come and join him in first class.” I said, “Okay!” and flounced up there and sat down next to him. I had on an angora, like a really nice little fuzzy sweater, and he reached over and cupped my breast and he said, “You don’t mind my doing this, do you?” And I said, “I really do.” He said, “Well, I respect you for that,” and went on cupping my breast. And he was on the aisle seat! It was like that then.
How did you get out of that?
I said, “I’ve got to go tinkle.” It really embarrassed me. Of course I never came back, and of course he wasn’t going to chase me all the way down there to second class.
Because I don’t think Collin would have objected, I’ll reveal that name now. It was Kirk Douglas. Because I had to redact that the first time around, I also had to omit the punchline of the anecdote, which Collin related with great relish. When Douglas summoned her to sit next to him, she initially mistook him for one of his frequent co-stars, and addressed him as “Mr. Lancaster”! That did not deter Douglas in his pursuit.
Late last year, the producer of the Mad Men Season 2 DVD set contacted me with the idea of essentially turning my piece on “The Benefactor” into a brief special feature on that DVD. I phoned Collin and asked if I could recount the personal experience that informed her performance in that episode; and again, she gave me permission to discuss her abortion, this time on camera. For a brief moment, it seemed possible that an interview with Collin could be included on the DVD along with mine. Collin even offered to film herself answering the producer’s questions. (Because she didn’t like to leave her hometown of Highlands, N.C., Collin had sent video greetings to several other film and TV events which had invited her as a guest.) But this never happened, and it’s a shame.
This morning Scott Paxton sent me the photo of Collin that appears at the top of this post. It’s from her period as a member the Compass Players – the Chicago theater troupe that was a precursor to Second City – which would date it around 1957-1958.
March 25, 2009
Even among movie buffs, Collin Wilcox is not as well known as she should be. Maybe it’s because of her gender-neutral name (taken from a Canadian uncle; her parents were confident of a boy), or because from the very beginning of her career she disappeared into her characters with a lack of vanity rare for a young actress.
Collin had one famous film role, as Mayella Ewell, the redneck teenager who falsely accuses a black man of rape, in To Kill a Mockingbird; her stormy witness-stand breakdown provides the movie with its startling, sad climactic twist. But her movie resume includes juicy roles that you’ve probably forgotten, even if you remember the films: two for her friend James Bridges (The Baby Maker and September 30, 1977, both criminally unavailable on DVD); one for Mike Nichols (lost amid the chaos as one of the nurses in Catch-22); the late sixties cult items The Name of the Game Is Kill and The Revolutionary; and finally on the losing side of science as the marine biologist in Jaws 2. (“Sharks don’t take things personally, Mr. Brody.”)
Before she ever made a feature, though, Collin was a busy television actress, one of the pool of A-list guest stars who made the rounds of the major TV dramas. Already a success on Broadway, she made her first splash on TV in a live adaptation (directed by Robert Mulligan, who would remember her for Mockingbird) of Carson McCullers’s The Member of the Wedding. Collin played Frankie, the twelve year-old southern tomboy, a role originated by Julie Harris in the stage and film versions of the novel.
Over the next two decades Collin appeared on The Defenders (three times), Dr. Kildare, Ben Casey, Judd For the Defense, The Waltons, Little House on the Prairie, and dozens more. But she may be best known for a pair of genre classics that both aired in early 1964. The first was one The Twilight Zone‘s ironic rants against conformity, “Number 12 Looks Like You,” which presciently envisioned a society where mandatory plastic surgery resculpts everyone to match a generic ideal of beauty. (In case you haven’t been watching reality TV or the CW lately, we more or less have that now.) “Number 12” put Collin in the unflattering role of the plain girl surrounded by beautiful people (Suzy Parker, Pam Austin, Richard Long), although her own offbeat good looks offered a rebuke to the plasticized prettiness of the others; as one TV fan said to me, “What was wrong with her? I liked her better the way she was!”
Three weeks after “Number 12,” Collin appeared as Pat Buttram’s jailbait, backwoods bride in “The Jar,” an Alfred Hitchcock Hour adaptation of Ray Bradbury so spooky that it still turns up regularly on TV aficionados’ lists of all-time favorite episodes (including mine). Collin has a ball, drawing on all the tools she set aside for “Number 12″‘s Marilyn Cuberle, slinking around in skimpy outfits and suppressing every sign of her own sharp intellect. The result is a frank sensuality that could only slip into sixties TV via performance; had it been scripted, it would have been censored.
Last year, Collin shared some remarkable stories surrounding her work in “The Benefactor,” a milestone Defenders episode about abortion. Since then we’d remained in touch, and Collin has become one of my favorite people – not just for her courage in discussing a painful incident from her past, but also because she uses words like “peachy” and hails from my own home state of North Carolina (where she now lives).
When I decided to inaugurate a series of interviews with some of my favorite classic television actors for this blog, Collin was an obvious choice. We spoke at length about the early years of her career last fall, after a delay necessitated by the presidential election: Collin had turned over her theater space to the local Obama campaign. Only after spending some time celebrating the fact that (for the first time in my lifetime) North Carolina’s electoral votes had gone to a Democratic candidate did we turn our attention to Collin’s life and to some of her many television roles.
Tell me about your television debut.
Brenner was the first thing that I ever did. I was told to go in, and there was a doorman, of course, and he pointed upstairs, to a big, winding staircase. So I bopped into the room that I was told was my dressing room, and I had my little box of stage makeup with me. I started applying my makeup, and I heard a huge commotion several floors down, and there was the producer and the director and the AD and a whole bunch of people. I heard my name several times and I went, “Hey, I’m up here!”
They thought I was late. They were really furious, and the makeup artist came to my rescue. She said, “If you don’t stop yelling at her, she won’t stop crying, and I’ll never get this makeup off and the other makeup on.” So they did. They didn’t know that I didn’t know that I wasn’t going to put on my own makeup. They’d asked for an experienced ingenue. There’s no such thing as an experienced ingenue!
Marty Balsam was playing my father, and we had the scene [with] the two of us on a settee. They said, “Okay, Marty’s closeup next.” They gave me a little box to sit on. They started to shoot, and I went, oh, gosh, I’ve got to get in there, so I just jumped into his one-shot, on the sofa next to him. I thought they’d made a mistake!
Was that the first time you’d ever been in front of a motion picture camera?
Yes, it had to have been, because those two scenes are so engraved in my memory. It was so traumatic.
As mobster’s daughter Elizabeth Joplin on Brenner (“Family Man,” 1959)
Was The Member of the Wedding a breakthrough for you?
Well, it was huge for me, because of course I’d read Carson McCullers and absolutely adored her. It’s any ingenue’s dream part, and I just loved everything about it. And like every other young actress in New York, I was going to have that part.
I cut my hair really, really, really short – this was just for the first audition – and I got those long dish towels and I had my husband bind my breasts, which wasn’t very much to do, but at least then I was totally flat-chested. Then the night before, I took iodine and I made freckles across my nose in different places, knowing it would fade the next morning and really look like freckles. Oh, and I went to the audition barefooted. I did the whole bit.
Robert Mulligan quite liked me, and he had me come back, and then I came back for the third time. And Claudia McNeil did not take to me. I don’t think she took to many people, but she certainly didn’t take to me. I thought, “I’m going to lose this – no, no, I’m not going to lose it!” She was in the room too, with Robert and maybe with someone else. I was doing the “we of me” speech, and I leapt up on Robert’s desk and did it up there, and then I leapt into Claudia’s lap and hugged and kissed her. I got the part.
Was The Member of the Wedding your first live TV role?
I think there was one before that, and I’m damned if I know what it was called [“Barefoot Soldier,” for Kraft Theater]. Sal Mineo was the male lead. He was a union soldier, and I was the southern girl. It was live, a three camera thing.
I remember another faux pas I made. We had a scene – it was a love interest thing, kind of cute – and we had a scene where we were supposed to be sitting around the pond. It a big huge tub with plastic and water in it, and all landscaped around. I was barefoot in a dress hiked up probably much higher than it should have been hiked up, and swishing my feet around in the water, and my toes caught on something. I’m a country girl, so it was natural for me to feel things with my toes, and I started to worry with it. I mean, just play with it and go on with the scene. And behind camera, I felt this frantic movement around me. I looked down and the water was going down at a huge rate. I’d pulled the plug out!
That was the same fall, ’57, as when I had got married, which was a terrible mistake, and lived in New York, which wasn’t a terrible mistake.
The late fall of 1957. I started going on auditions, and in December I got a role in The Day the Money Stopped. Harold Clurman was the director, and Brendan Gill had adapted from it Maxwell Anderson’s book. Richard Basehart was in it, and Kevin McCarthy, and Mildred Natwick. That was a great experience.
It was kind of like its title: The Day the Money Stopped. It was in and it was out. But that year George C. Scott and I won the male and female award – Clarence Derwent, I think it was called – as the best supporting actress and actor on or off Broadway.
Prior to that you had performed in Chicago, right?
Yeah, I went to school at the Goodwin Memorial School of Drama there, and then I went back to Chicago to become a member of Compass, the first improvisational group in this country, maybe anywhere, with Mike Nichols, Elaine May, Shelley Berman, the late Severn Darden, Barbara Harris. Then I played the ingenue in Arthur Miller’s two-act version of A View From the Bridge, that starred Luther Adler.
The marriage that you mentioned, was that to Geoffrey Horne?
No, I’m talking about the first one, Walter Beakel, who is deceased. He was a director. I met him in summer stock in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. One of those things where you do about fourteen plays in one summer. He was down from New York. After that summer was over, he replaced a director at Compass, and Barbara Harris was going to leave in a few months, so he brought me in as Barbara’s replacement. Then it folded, and people went their separate ways.
After the summer stock tour of A View From the Bridge on the straw hat circuit, I rushed home to do The Fourposter with my groom to be, and then went to New York.
Walter and I were getting married here in Highlands, and we were also in rehearsal for the two-character play The Fourposter, that Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy did on Broadway to great success. We were doing it in my parents’ little theater here, the community theater where I started. A reheasal was called, and I got to the theater and the theater doors were locked and there was no one there and I was sitting there fuming and calling everybody totally unprofessional, and my mother drove up and said, “Collin, rehearsal’s at the church, dear.”
I had one thing on my mind – that play. The only reason I married Walter was he said if I didn’t marry him, he’d leave and we wouldn’t do the play. That’s why I married him! I was very mature. We were a couple of weeks away from opening, and he’d been pressing me to marry him, and I said, “Walter, I really respect you, you’re a terrific director and a really good teacher, but I don’t want to marry you. I’m not in love with you.” He said, “That’s okay. Doesn’t matter.” He’d made up his mind he was going to marry me.
Another of your early roles in New York was on Play of the Week, in “The Velvet Glove” with Helen Hayes.
Do you remember a character actor named Larry Gates? He was in it also. Larry Gates had worked down at my parents’ theater in the forties, and so I knew him from being very small. I knew him, and here we are in New York and we’re both in the same TV show with the magnificent Helen Hayes, who had the oddest habit of looking at your forehead when she talked to you. It was because she was so short she was afraid her eyes wouldn’t be seen. It was a little disconcerting but one got around it.
What I remember most from that shoot is that Miss Hayes said something that absolutely tickled Larry so much that he peed in his pants, and he had to take his trenchcoat and tie it around himself and wear it that way for the rest of rehearsals. Isn’t it weird the things you can remember? I don’t remember anything else about that, except that I played some really kind of boring little scullery part. I did it because Miss Helen Hayes was in it.
Even that early in your career, were you choosy about the parts you took?
Yep. I was never interested in being a star.
You were a serious actress, instead?
Well, see, I was of the theatah, dear, and one took one’s acting very seriously. You know, you’d think you were a rocket scientist or something. Particularly back then, doing the work was very, very important, and of course that just got intensified when I became a member of the Actors Studio.
How did you get into the Actors Studio?
Walter was old friends with Geraldine Page, and she became sort of a mentor. I guess she came with Walter to The Day the Money Stopped. She said that I absolutely had to audition for the Actors Studio, and she was sure that I would get in. And I wanted to study with someone, and why not the great Lee Strasberg? Three auditions, and you’re in or not. For life.
What did you learn from Strasberg?
He gave me the voice of my own intuition. He taught you how to be emotionally available to yourself, if you were willing. I already had the technique. I’d been on stage for a long time. It just deepened what I already have, which is basically being an intuitive actor.
Let me ask about some of your better known TV appearances from early on. One was The Twilight Zone.
Oh, The Twilight Zone. My own father was very much like what you hear about her father – the way Marilyn talks about her father. One of his lines, that she quotes, was, “When everyone’s beautiful, no one will be beautiful.” My father was an educated, compassionate man, and I thought about that when I was doing that role. You know, I was totally on the side of Marilyn – thinking, this is awful, this could lead to 1984, with a stretch of the imagination.
What do you remember about the rest of the cast and crew of “Number 12 Looks Just Like You”?
Suzy Parker was such a great beauty. I was just enamored of that kind of beauty, and she gave me all kinds of beauty tricks. I mean, she was a model. She said, “Now, keep a little pot of rouge by your bedside, and your brush, and just put some on your cheeks before your husband wakes up.”
The director was Abner Biberman. Between playing the role and being chased around on the set by that man – and I had on some skimpy clothes, particularly that hospital thing. Fortunately he was really heavy, and I could get into small places that he couldn’t!
Biberman was really that obvious about trying to grab you?
Oh, yes. He had directed me in a play previous to casting me in this. Oh, god, it is an awful play, called The Family Way. Jack Kelly was my co-star. That’s where Biberman knew anything about me, really. I thought I was working with a man who was frothing at the mouth all the time – he had quite a temper – but he chewed Tums or something, so this frothy white stuff came out of the sides of his mouth when he was talking.
When you were a young actress, did men often chase you around sets like that?
Yes. And there was no such [term] then as sexual harrassment, and you didn’t talk to anyone about it. Because you probably felt, well, it’s my fault. I must be flirting. I don’t feel like I’m flirting, I don’t want to be flirting, I just want to act! It was . . . annoying, to say the least.
I will not name this actor, but he was a really big star. After Twilight Zone, I flew to Italy to join my fiance, Geoffrey Horne, who was shooting a film in Rome. Then on the flight coming back, the stewardess, as we called them then, came up and said, “So-and-so would like you to come and join him in first class.” I said, “Okay!” and flounced up there and sat down next to him. I had on an angora, like a really nice little fuzzy sweater, and he reached over and cupped my breast and he said, “You don’t mind my doing this, do you?”
And I said, “I really do.”
He said, “Well, I respect you for that,” and went on cupping my breast. And he was on the aisle seat! It was like that then.
How did you get out of that?
I said, “I’ve got to go tinkle.” It really embarrassed me. Of course I never came back, and of course he wasn’t going to chase me all the way down there to second class.
As pushy reporter Lisa Rand on Run For Your Life (“The Treasure Seekers,” 1966)
The way you described yourself in relation to Suzy Parker highlights an interesting aspect of your career, in that even though you were attractive, you often found yourself playing characters like Marilyn Cuberle: the plain, girl-next-door type.
I know it.
How did you feel about that at the time?
Well, somehow I knew, from a very young age, that I was a character actress, and that I was just going to have to go through this ingenue stuff until I got to some juicy character parts. Yeah, there were times when I thought, this is ridiculous. But usually, you see, the parts were better than the bip-boppity-boo little cute sexy ones.
Also, I had a very flexible face. Whatever the character was, I could look that way. I wasn’t really interested in how the character looked. I was interested in the character.
You did play a pretty unforgettable sexpot, albeit a sort of stereotypical backwoods one, in the famous Alfred Hitchcock Hour “The Jar.”
That was a wonderful, wonderful shoot. Norman Lloyd put together this incredible cast. I mean, it was just a wonderful cast of people, and the script was wonderful and just so Ray Bradbury. Hitchcock was crazy about it.
It was [Norman’s] pet project, it really was, and we were all very excited because we had a ten-day shoot, which was such a luxury. Norman kept such a wonderful excitement on the set. I just loved everybody, and we all loved the piece that we were doing. Pat Buttram! Waiting for setups I got to sit and listen to Gene Autry stories. Now where else would I ever have heard Gene Autry stories?
Jim Bridges [who adapted Bradbury’s story] and I became really close friends. I was in a couple of movies that he did, and a play that he wrote, and that’s where we met, on the set of “The Jar.” He was there most of the shooting time.
Your second Hitchcock Hour was a strange, modern-dress version of “The Monkey’s Paw.”
Oh, I hated that. I think I didn’t like my part, and I certainly didn’t like my costumes. And I was terrible! We came across it quite a few years ago, and my husband, who didn’t know anything about theater when we were married almost thirty years ago, but I said, “You have to go into theater, darling, because otherwise you’ll bore me and then I’ll leave you, and I’d much rather stay with you.” He went into theater; he’s a brilliant improvisationalist and now is a great film buff, and has an eye. So we’re watching this, and he turned around and said, “Collin, you are awful in this. What were you doing?” I said, “I know. It’s just terrible!”
You were on Dr. Kildare twice, both times playing unfit mothers.
Oh, and one of those unfit mothers [in “Sister Mike”], Mary Badham played my daughter. Her parents really didn’t want her to go on with acting. They wanted her to have a normal little life. But this role came up and because we’d been in To Kill a Mockingbird together – we didn’t have any scenes together [in Mockingbird], but we saw each other on the set, and I had a nice relationship with the children.
There was a scene that I remember, on the bed. I think I was a prostitute; anyway, I was a derelict mother, that’s for sure. She was watching me put on makeup. You know that old cake mascara? You had a little cardboard box, and a strip of cake mascara and there was a little brush in the box, and you spit on the mascara and rubbed the brush and put it on your eyelashes. In the scene, I got ready to do that, and I spit, and Mary Badham had never seen it, and she just totally broke up, and we just kept it in the scene.
You appeared opposite Robert Culp in a rival medical drama, Ben Casey.
Here’s what I truly remember. It used to be fashionable, if you could get it just right, to just put a little bit of bella donna in your eye and then it’d make your pupils really big. Very dangerous to be doing, of course. I don’t know where I got bella donna – probably from my eye doctor – but I decided before my closeup I’d put some in my eyes.
Well, of course everything got really, really hazy. I could remember my lines and everything, but I couldn’t see that well. And then there was a script change – and I couldn’t read! I faked my way through it. I just had the script girl read it to me several times over, and made some excuse why I couldn’t read it myself. Can you imagine being that ridiculous?
Do you remember your appearances on The Untouchables?
I remember the one with Luther Adler, because my character had to come up to her front door, and then there were people shooting at her. What they did was wire the bannister, and they put too much juice in it, and I lost the hearing in my left ear for, I’d say, at least five months. It came back. Movie sets are dangerous!
On Gunsmoke, I was playing some prairie wife, and the locusts were coming. Now that was bad enough, that you’re sitting in a buckboard, plowing through the fields at a great rate, and all these – I guess they were rubber [bugs] – but masses of them are being blown in your face by a wind machine. But during this particular Gunsmoke, I had gotten a flu of some kind, and my fever was up to about 102. I could not even stand, and the A.D. said, “You’ll understand, Collin, I have to ask you if we can get this one last shot. We’ll lash you to the seat in the buckboard.” I said, “Sure.” They were going to kill me! But I agreed. I said, “Oh, sure.” Always be a trouper.
You were on The Fugitive twice, with David Janssen.
Always with The Fugitive, we shot in the most ungodly, tacky locations, it seemed. This one [“Approach With Care”] was around a rubber tire refuse place. There were towers of ancient rubber tires everywhere. I don’t know how five hundred people always found David Janssen, but they did, and they would arrive at the shoot. He had his great big trailer, and he would never sign autographs. They would even get to the point where they would start shaking the trailer.
During the mid-sixties you made several TV appearances together with your second husband, Geoffrey Horne. One was a Route 66 where Horne has a really showy part, and you make a little cameo as a glamorous girl who jilted him years earlier. Do you remember that?
I do. “Is It True That There Are Poxies at the Bottom of Landfair Lake?”
That’s very good – how did you remember that title?
Because I was on that shoot when President Kennedy was assassinated. I was there as a cameo, because Geoffrey wanted me there and we traveled together, and I didn’t mind doing a cameo. It was in Savannah. The announcement [of the Kennedy shooting] was made on the set, so the set closed down for the rest of the day. When we were in our hotel room that night, there was dancing and cheering like it was a Mardi Gras on the streets.
But worse than that was our experience when we all got back to the shoot the next morning. Everyone was really, really very depressed, and moving slowly. And the A.D. or the assistant A.D., who usually had a golf club with him – you know, taking swings at the [imaginary] turf – he said, and these are the exact words, “All right, everybody, back to work. The assassination was yesterday.”
You must have felt really out of touch, being far from home and in the deep south when that happened.
Yeah, it was absolutely horrible.
You also did an episode of The F.B.I. with Geoffrey and with Colleen Dewhurst.
Oh, I forgot he was in that! Working with Colleen was beautiful – what a great and fine and generous actress she was.
I’ve got the greatest story to tell you about that show. Geoffrey and I adopted three children. The mother had abandoned them and they’d been in McClaren Hall in California, where they put juvenile delinquents in the holding tank for kids whose parents had abandoned them, and then they went to a foster home. They were having to remove them from the foster home because the foster parents had twelve kids in there, and that was too many. So we adopted them, all in one fell swoop. The eldest boy was eight and a half, the girl was four and a half, and the baby was eighteen months.
The social worker brought them to the house. The baby was fine, but the two other kids looked as if they had seen the devil in front of them. I was standing there with my arms open and smiling at them and welcoming them. They had seen that episode, “The Baby Sitter,” and the big scene where Colleen snatches off my wig and I’m all bald and burned underneath! Well, imagine you’re these little orphans coming to your new home, and here’s this [same woman]? It took a little while to get over that. “No, no, no, no, your new mommy was just acting. It’s not me.”
As Verna the waitress (“She makes great pies”) on Longstreet (“Eye of the Storm,” 1972)
Did you like Los Angeles, and acting in Hollywood, after you moved west with Geoffrey?
You know, except for Rome, I really haven’t liked any place but here. The mountains are just so much a part of me. I loved Malibu and on the beach, but the L.A. kind of life, the show biz life, was never anything I wanted to be a part of. I always knew I’d come back here.
When did you move back to North Carolina?
1978. I left L.A. when those drive-by shootings were starting to happen. The women, except for me, were either carrying brass knuckles, or they had a pistol stuck in their pack at their side, or some other form of protection against attacks. And there was the cocaine rage during that time. If you walked into an office, the people in power were practically all doing cocaine. It was like you weren’t one of them if you weren’t doing that.
And then there was the other thing. I was in my mid-forties, and I thought, my god, have they all discovered I really can’t act? There weren’t many parts coming in. Plus, my youngest child, Michael, was still at home, and we’d had an earthquake that just absolutely terrified him. So I said, okay, let’s go home.
I met Scott several months after I’d been home, and we were married in August of ’79. We have five dogs and one cat and two kittens and two horses and a pony. We live in the log cabin I was raised in, and that I inherited. I grew up on the side of a mountain, and Frank Lloyd Wright said that the side of a mountain was the sweetest place to be.
Collin Wilcox passed away on October 14, 2009. More here.
August 15, 2008
I wasn’t planning to tackle the new season of AMC’s Mad Men, the retro-sixties pastiche that was the only really good new show to debut last year, until all the episodes had been broadcast. But my correspondents have been abuzz with word that this week’s segment named-checked the finest television drama of the actual sixties, Reginald Rose’s The Defenders, in a major way. I had to take a peek.
Last season Mad Men referenced The Twilight Zone, in a scene where aspiring writer Paul Kinsey (Michael Gladis) cites Rod Serling as an inspiration. It was a terrific way to humanize a character (because, don’t we all dig Rod Serling?) whose pipe-smoking pomposity was off-putting, even before he scuttled his rapport with the new secretary by making a clumsy pass at her. So it’s not surprising that, as Mad Men jumps ahead eighteen months (from 1960 to 1962) to continue its narrative, its creator, Matthew Weiner, and his writing staff would choose to acknowledge The Defenders as a way of updating the show’s cultural touchstones.
The Mad Men storyline wraps an entire subplot around The Defenders. Mad Men‘s Sterling Cooper Agency becomes involved in the search for a replacement sponsor for the Defenders episode of April 28, 1962, which was so inflammatory that the show’s regular sponsors withdrew their advertisements. Hotshot ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) pitches the Defenders opportunity to one of the agency’s clients, a lipstick company called Belle Jolie, on the grounds that they can buy ad time for “pennies on the dollar.” Plus, the episode is about abortion, a topic of interest to Belle Jolie’s target audience of young women. But the client declines, arguing that the show is “not wholesome.”
The title of the Defenders episode in question, “The Benefactor,” is the same as the title of the Mad Men episode. Mad Men excerpts two clips from the original “The Benefactor.” In the first, the district attorney (Kermit Murdock, a wonderful, rotund character actor with a trademark droopy lip) cross-examines the young woman (Collin Wilcox) who was on the operating table at the time her doctor was arrested. The second scene depicts a confrontation between a teenager (soap star Kathleen Widdoes) and her father (Will Hare), who’s so ashamed by the news that his daughter has had an abortion that he slaps her. Lawrence Preston (E. G. Marshall), the attorney at the center of the series, scolds the man for his lack of compassion.
Kathleen Widdoes, E. G. Marshall, and Will Hare
“The Benefactor,” which was written by future Academy Award winner Peter Stone, employed a self-consciously didactic strategy toward the abortion issue. In the narrative, the doctor arrested for performing the operations (which were, of course, illegal until the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade verdict in 1973) encourages his attorney, Lawrence Preston, to put the law on trial. Preston expresses doubts about using the courts as a “public forum,” as this defense stategy will increase his client’s chances of being convicted (which is in fact what happens). “The Benefactor” turns its courtroom scenes into a referendum on a hotbed issue, using the testimony of the witnesses in the fictitious case as a means of presenting real statistics and ethical arguments to the audience. Both sides are heard, but “The Benefactor” clearly advocates for the legalization of abortion. The argument that a fetus is “not a human being” is articulated passionately, and twice the point is made that if the law is to restrict abortions, it must provide humane alternatives. (More humane, the script suggests, than foster care and homes for unwed mothers.)
“The Benefactor” received a great deal of press attention in the spring of 1962 when, as related on Mad Men, the three rotating sponsors of The Defenders – Lever Brothers, Kimberly Clark, and Brown & Williamson Tobacco – declined to have anything to do with the episode. In January of that year, CBS president Frank Stanton had testified before the FCC that “The Benefactor” – already notorious even before it was broadcast – was “a very fine, realistic and honest dramatization,” but the advertisers were unmoved. It was “in conflict with their corporate policies,” according to the New York Times.
“The Benefactor” was the nineteenth episode produced during The Defenders’ first season, but the thirtieth to be broadcast. During the weeks while the completed show sat on the shelf, conversations approximating those depicted in Mad Men took place. Eventually the Speidel Corporation, which made watch bands, bought up the whole hour’s advertising. Just how much of a discount, if any, Speidel received is unknown.
But the worst of the storm was yet to come. Hoping to cushion the blow, CBS screened “The Benefactor” for its local affiliates via closed circuit television on April 18. This move may have prevented a widespread backlash, but ten of the 180 network stations declined to run the episode. The residents of Boston, Providence, Buffalo, New Orleans, Omaha, Milwaukee, and various smaller cities never saw “The Benefactor.” Nor did anyone in Canada, after the CBC rejected the segment. A number of stations delayed the broadcast until after the evening news, as did the BBC when “The Benefactor” crossed the Atlantic in July. All of these events received ongoing coverage by major newspapers, including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.
Robert F. Simon played the abortionist in “The Benefactor”
Throughout all this, The Defenders enjoyed staunch support from CBS. It was an unusual display of backbone in an industry dependent on the fickle support of the masses. Bob Markell, then the associate producer of The Defenders, remembered that the hero of the hour was CBS chairman William Paley. “It would have gone on with or without sponsors,” Markell told me, because Paley believed in the show. Michael Dann, the CBS executive who had developed the Defenders pilot and fought to get it on the air over the objections of network president Jim Aubrey, also felt that the sponsor defections were irrelevant. Dann felt that “The Benefactor” won the day because it was serious-minded and well-made, like all of the programs supplied by executive producer Herbert Brodkin’s company. Had it been exploitative or inept, the episode might have done irreparable damage to The Defenders.
The historical record supports Dann’s assessment. Published surveys of viewer responses reveal that there was no “Benefactor” backlash. Two weeks after the broadcast, Reginald Rose told the New York Times that the mail received (over a thousand letters, compared to 150-200 following most episodes) ran eleven to one in favor of the abortion show. The Los Angeles Times published the first ten letters it received about “The Benefactor,” eight of which were positive, and Television Age reported that 93.8% of the 1,000 New Yorkers it surveyed approved of “The Benefactor.” The episode pleased critics, as well, earning a rave from Cecil Smith in the Los Angeles Times and a lengthy, if more ambivalent, notice from the New York Times‘ Jack Gould. Gould nevertheless called “The Benefactor” a “remarkable demonstration of the use of theatre as an instrument of protest.”
Michael Dann – incidentally a fan of Mad Men who believes it’s the “most important show on cable right now” – remembered “The Benefactor” as an essential “turning point” for The Defenders. The positive outcome of that controversy translated into a mandate for Reginald Rose and the series’ other writers to address the issues of the day in a frank and opinionated manner. Many of the first season segments were timid, or had lapsed into silly melodrama or Perry Mason-style courtroom theatrics. “The Benefactor” gave The Defenders the courage of its convictions, the mojo to confront a divisive topic literally almost every week: capital punishment, the blacklist, atheism, faith and religion, medical malpractice, birth control, nuclear proliferation, child abuse, euthanasia, the draft, recreational drug use.
One reason I was pleased to be able to write about “The Benefactor” is that it gave me an excuse to renew my acquaintance with Collin Wilcox, one of my favorite television actresses of the early sixties. Wilcox is probably best known as the angry young woman who accuses Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) of rape in To Kill a Mockingbird (which was filmed before but released after “The Benefactor” was made and telecast). TV fans will remember her as the plain girl who doesn’t want to look like everybody else in The Twilight Zone episode “Number Twelve Looks Just Like You,” and as Pat Buttram’s sultry child bride in The Alfred Hitchcock Hour‘s creepy “The Jar.” Today, Wilcox and her husband operate a small black box theatre in her home town in western North Carolina, where she will star in Love Letters opposite Rex Reed this October.
Collin Wilcox in The Defenders‘ “The Benefactor”
In “The Benefactor,” Wilcox plays a woman who undergoes an abortion after being raped. Though compelled to testify against her doctor, she is grateful to him, and unwavering in her conviction that she should have been allowed to terminate her pregnancy legally. In our conversation this week, Wilcox revealed that she drew from her own life in shaping her performance.
“I really related to it, because I had an abortion when I was eighteen,” Wilcox told me. “At that time it was damn near impossible to find someone who would perform one.” Wilcox flew with her mother to Peoria, Illinois – “the airport was full of standees of famous movie stars, and I remember thinking they had probably all been there for the same reason I was” – where the operation was done in far from ideal circumstances. Her doctor was “still wearing a hat with fishing hooks on it” when he arrived. Wilcox experienced complications after the procedure, and nearly died. Although she had not been raped, as the young woman in “The Benefactor” had been, Wilcox shared her character’s view that her abortion was the right decision.
Wilcox, a member of the Actors Studio, had studied with the legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg during the late fifties. Strasberg’s technique emphasized the actor’s use of his or her own past experiences and sensations to create a character. With that in mind, it’s hard to imagine a more daunting exercise in the “Method” than the one Wilcox underwent for “The Benefactor.”
If The Twilight Zone remains familiar today to almost everyone, The Defenders was probably a big “say what?” to Mad Men fans, a sixties totem as exotic as ashtrays in the office and martinis for lunch. As far as I’ve been able to determine, the last time The Defenders was shown on American television was on an obscure and now defunct cable channel, circa 1980. It’s hard to think of another series made after 1960, even one in black and white, that ran for as long as The Defenders (four seasons, 132 episodes) and yet hasn’t been syndicated in nearly thirty years. And that’s not even taking into account the show’s acclaim and enormous historical relevance. Mad Men enthusiasts seem to be expressing some curiosity about The Defenders in their columns and blogs. Is it naive to hope that a few seconds’ exposure on Mad Men might lead to a renaissance for The Defenders, on cable or home video? Probably. But here’s hoping.
Update (August 19): I’ve chatted with Defenders producer Bob Markell again, after he saw Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” over the weekend. Markell felt that the “concept was admirable,” but expressed dismay about some factual inaccuracies regarding the television industry of the early sixties, most of them in the scene depicting the initial phone conversation between Harry Crane (Rich Sommer) and the junior CBS executive. These are indeed worth exploring further.
The CBS exec in Mad Men offers a rather confusing explanation as to how “The Benefactor” got made. He tells Crane that the abortion script was somehow substituted for an episode on cannibalism that the network would not allow to be made. I’m guessing this is a modified version of an instance of horse-trading that’s been widely reported in the literature on early television. In 1963, when CBS balked at Reginald Rose’s pitch for a Defenders episode about racial prejudice (not the show’s first brush with that inflammatory topic), Rose offered to produce a segment on blacklisting instead. Rose felt that CBS would back down and allow him to proceed with the race story, but to his surprise the network agreed to the switch and the Emmy-winning 1963 “Blacklist” episode was the result.
However, implausible as it may sound, there was a Defenders episode about cannibalism. Written by David W. Rintels and entitled “A Taste of Ashes,” it dealt with the prosecution for murder of two sailors who had killed and eaten another seaman while adrift at sea. The segment was produced in late 1963 (the assassination of President Kennedy occurred during the filming) but not broadcast until the following season, on November 12, 1964. Because of the sensational subject matter, CBS shelved the episode for nearly a year before executive producer Herbert Brodkin bullied it onto the air. “A Taste of Ashes” attracted only a fraction of the attention that “The Benefactor” had, even though the earlier segment had enjoyed the public support of the network. Mad Men is generally pretty scrupulous in its historical accuracy – “The Benefactor” takes place in late March or early April of 1962, while the preceding episode, “Flight 1,” deals with a real plane crash that occurred on March 1 of that year – but the reference to the cannibalism story violates this chronology.
Another line that rings false is the CBS exec’s comment that “the director eats up all this time refusing to do” the cannibalism script. In fact, not even the most acclaimed episodic television directors enjoyed that much clout in the sixties. On almost any of the show of that period (and probably now, as well) a director would have been immediately fired and replaced had he flatly refused to shoot script pages. Markell averred strongly that this would have been the case on The Defenders, even though the series had its share of temperamental directors.
(One thing the Mad Men script gets right is the CBS exec’s comment that “The Benefactor” will be “going on the air, sponsor or no.” Last week, I quoted Markell to the effect that this was the network’s position in 1962. What I didn’t bother to include, because it was somewhat redundant, is that CBS vice president Frank Stanton made a similar comment in his January 1962 testimony before the FCC. I’d wager that his remark, which was quoted in the news coverage of the “Benefactor” controversy, were the source of this bit of dialogue.)
The most troublesome of the CBS executive’s lines in Mad Men is his joke, “I miss the blacklist.” It’s highly unlikely that anyone at CBS would have uttered this remark in 1962 – not only because the blacklist was a taboo subject, even in private conversations, but because CBS was still enforcing it in 1962. The network continued to veto certain blacklisted artists sought for The Defenders at least until the series’ final (1964-1965) season; in fact, my research suggests that CBS, oblivious to irony, may have rejected the producers’ original choices to star in and direct the “Blacklist” episode.
Of course, these are minor points, and creative license is essential to good drama. I still think it’s very cool that The Defenders, one of my pet TV history causes, has been interwoven so creatively into one of its few worthwhile modern counterparts. But, upon further reflection, I do wish that Matthew Weiner and his co-writer, Rick Cleveland, had thought better of that glib line about the blacklist.
Markell made one final, crucial point about the storyline of Mad Men‘s “The Benefactor” in our conversation, and he’s absolutely right about it, too. The Madison Avenue agencies were so ubiquitous in the production of live television that it’s unlikely a large, established agency like Sterling Cooper wouldn’t have had a thriving television department long before 1962. It also seems strange that so trivial as to function as a consolation prize for the likes of Harry Crane. But, hey, now that Harry does have his new toy, perhaps that opens the door for a more meaningful storyline about the blacklist. Sadly, there’s still plenty of time within Mad Men‘s chronology in which it would still be relevant.
Many thanks to Collin Wilcox, Bob Markell, and Michael Dann for taking time to answer my questions; to Jonathan Ward for research; and to Bob Lamm for bringing Mad Men‘s Defenders homage to my attention.